How to Break a Weight Loss Plateau
Weight loss plateaus are hurdles, not a full stop. Learn how to get past them and keep losing weight.
You lost some weight—maybe a lot of weight—through hard work and dedication to the cause. You may have treated yourself to slimmer jeans, bold print (not just black!) leggings, or a form-fitting tank to showcase that trimmer bod. Only now, a few weeks later, the scale won’t budge.
You’re eating the same, still working out, and drinking all of the water but aren’t dropping any more pounds. What gives? You’re going through a weight loss plateau.
Not to worry. This can be common on a weight loss journey. Learn what could be going on and how to get past the hurdles and start losing weight again.
Why We Experience Weight Loss Plateaus
Think back to high school biology class, when you learned that the human body strives to maintain a state of homeostasis. There’s a delicate balance to the symphony of all living things.
Something, and likely several things, changed to cause your initial weight loss—call it a caloric deficit, increased exercise, eating eggs and greens instead of a fruit-and-juice smoothie for breakfast… these intentional changes added up over time.
If you’ve stopped losing weight but aren’t gaining any weight, you’ve entered weight loss maintenance mode. This is a good place to hang out and get comfy because, to sustain your weight loss, you’ll need to know how to live in this place.
If you haven’t reached your goal weight, though, you’ll have to accept that you need to continue to make tweaks to what you’re doing now.
Your miraculous body adapts quickly and that’s what happened. More precisely, your basal metabolic rate shifted in an effort to achieve homeostasis.
A weight-loss plateau happens because your body interprets a caloric deficit as a life-threatening condition and responds by decreasing BMR, or basal metabolic rate (what you burn to survive when not doing anything), and RMR, resting metabolic rate<sup>1</sup> (what you burn when you’re at rest, or not moving). You’ll likely also experience an increased desire to eat<sup>2</sup> because, hey, your innate will to live trumps your wish to trim down.
The definition of losing weight implies a decline in body mass. The more body mass you have, the more calories you burn. Your basal and resting metabolic rates make up the bulk of total calories you expend each day so you’re burning fewer calories every day now than you did when you weighed more. Your BMR and RMR also decline more when you lose muscle tissue, which tends to happen when you lose weight. You usually lose both fat mass and fat-free mass (muscle and other non-fat mass) when you drop pounds.
4 Ways We Burn Energy
So, in order to keep losing weight, you’ll likely need to make some adjustments to your diet, activity, and sleep routines. Before diving into those, this quick primer on how we burn energy can help you understand the tips that follow:
Thermic effect of physical activity (TEPA): The amount of energy burned during all activity, including workouts, walks, standing, etc.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): The amount of energy burned through an activity that isn’t a workout. Examples include gardening, cleaning, walking upstairs, carrying children or pets, etc.
Thermic effect of food (TEF): The increase in metabolic rate that happens after you eat food. Your body burns calories to digest, absorb, and store the food. Diet-induced thermogenesis (DIT) for separate nutrients includes: protein 20–30%, fat 0–3%, carbs 5–10%, and alcohol 10–30%. In the context of a day, the amount of calories burned by a healthy person for DIT is 10% of the total amount ingested<sup>3</sup>.
Total energy expenditure (TEE): Your daily tally of how much energy you burned. This includes the entire thermogenesis buffet.
How Rapid or Massive Weight Loss Can Torpedo Your Resting Metabolic Rate
Did you lose weight at a quick clip initially, then stall? Your resting metabolic rate may be the culprit.
Research shows that rapid weight loss slows the metabolism and may predispose you to pile the pounds back on once you drop the drastic cutbacks.
In a small study that reviewed the impact of a very low-calorie diet on obese men and women, participants lost weight and body fat rapidly after 12 weeks on the diet but their RMR dropped by 24%<sup>4</sup>. In this case, the decrease in resting metabolic rate did not correlate with changes in lean body mass.
Massive weight loss may also slow metabolism<sup>5</sup>, as one study of severely obese participants showed. After 30 weeks on a diet and exercise program, more than one-third of initial weight was lost—about 83% from fat and 17% from fat-free mass. Researchers reported dramatic slowing of resting metabolism, despite the fact that participants exercised and preserved a relative amount of fat-free mass.
Scientists noted that the change in metabolism could cause the study participants to regain the weight lost unless they maintain high levels of physical activity and reduced calorie intake.
The studies noted above show how rapid weight loss and massive weight loss slow resting metabolic rate. These results can differ from those who lost, say 25 pounds, reverted back to their old way of eating or (not) exercising, and gained some weight back.
A meta-analysis of research illuminates this difference. The scientific review highlighted that, although the magnitude of weight loss was similar in the studies included, gradual weight loss significantly preserved resting metabolic rate<sup>6</sup> compared to rapid weight loss. It also showed that gradual weight loss promoted greater reductions in fat mass and body fat percentage.
Sorry, speedy hares, but slow and steady tortoises win the weight loss race. Aim to lose between 0.5–1% of your total weight weekly—that’s almost 1–1.5 pounds a week. If you have more body fat to lose, you may lose weight a little faster than this, but anything more drastic than about 2 pounds or less a week could signal those unfavorable metabolic shifts.
6 Dietary Changes to Get Past a Plateau
A-plus if you paid attention to the bulleted list of how we burn energy (above) and saw that we burn more calories breaking down protein than the other macronutrients. You may have also noticed the thermic effect of alcohol but don’t pop the prosecco to celebrate. Calories and sugar from alcohol won’t help build your lean mass like protein will.
1. Eat More Protein.
Bump up your protein intake to 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight, spread out in 20–30 grams per meal. An analysis of scientific research suggests that this amount of protein provides an improvement in appetite and body weight management<sup>7</sup>. A randomized controlled trial on 60 obese women found that a high-protein diet (25% protein, 30% fat, 45% carbs) followed for two months resulted in significant improvements in body weight, body mass index, and waist circumference<sup>8</sup>.
When it comes to building lean mass, it’s a good idea to consume a protein-rich meal or low-glycemic protein powder (mixed with water, milk, or nut milk) within 30–45 minutes after you finish an intense cardio effort or strength training—particularly if you did the workout in a fasted state. Post-workout protein helps supply the nutrition you need during the rebuild phase.
Additional key dietary strategies to get you over a weight-loss hump:
2. Eat More Fiber.
A scientific review of 62 trials found that viscous fiber reduced mean body weight and waist circumference<sup>9</sup> in participants—with greater reductions in body weight shown in overweight people as well as those with metabolic syndrome and diabetes. To get more viscous fiber in your diet, eat more plants. Add foods like beans and legumes, flax seeds, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, oats, barley, turnips, and sweet potatoes.
3. Eat More Fruits and Vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables also contain lots of fiber. Everyone—except carnivores—will tell you to eat more fruits and veggies for better health and weight management. It’s unanimous nutrition advice. If you need more validation, this meta-analysis showed that increased intake of fruits and vegetables is a chief contributor to weight loss in women<sup>10</sup>. Another study of 80 overweight Brazilian adults revealed the increase in dietary fiber from added fruits and vegetables was associated with greater weight loss<sup>11</sup>. Adding vegetables to meals, as sides or starters, and as part of snacks can add bulk and make you feel like you’re eating more (a trick called volumetrics). Indeed, you will eat more volume overall but for fewer calories, more nutrients and fiber, and more water than you would bulking out your meals with, say, rice or pasta.
4. Control Food Portions.
Measure your food to keep an eye on portions. Eating reasonable portions and remaining mindful of what portions and serving sizes look like can help you avoid overeating. It might be a tad tedious and require you to wash more dishes, but use a food scale, measuring cups and spoons to keep yourself honest about how much you eat. One study showed that serving larger portion sizes increased the number of food people ate. Study participants who were trained to visualize portion sizes ate fewer calories with a greater proportion of lower energy-dense foods<sup>12</sup> (hello volumetrics!).
5. Track What You Eat.
Track your food (if you aren’t already or if you stopped). Another way to keep yourself aware of what you eat and drink: Log it. Try to do this soon after you consume it so you don’t forget what and how much of it you ate. One study revealed the importance of frequent dietary tracking for consistent, long-term weight loss success<sup>13</sup>.
6. Drink Water. Lots of It.
8 Ways to Move Smarter to Jumpstart Weight Loss (Again)
You may already exercise regularly as part of your original weight loss regimen—if that’s the case, keep it up! It might be time to spice things up with more intensity. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) and weight lifting (or strength training) give you the best return on time investment and can help you burn more calories at rest.
One study on inactive obese women showed that after 10 months of completing intervals of strength and conditioning (cardio) for 30 minutes or less per workout, participants lost weight, had positive associations with exercise<sup>17</sup>, and stuck with it.
Another study in men showed reduced body fat, increased blood irisin concentration, and an acceleration of basal metabolism<sup>18</sup> after eight weeks of HIIT. Blood irisin is a hormone released after exercise that increases fat burning<sup>19</sup>.
You’ll need to work up to working out more intensely, but you can start incrementally by adding a few minutes of higher-intensity effort (70–90% of max heart rate) to your cardio workouts, and trying 10-minute bouts of HIIT with some modifications (such as less jumping) until your body adapts and you can do more.
In addition to myriad health benefits, strength training (aka resistance training) increases fat-free mass, and may reduce fat weight by 4 pounds and increase resting metabolic rate by 7%<sup>20</sup> after just 10 weeks. Indeed, lifting weights burns fat<sup>21</sup>. What’s more, it appears to burn belly fat in healthy older women<sup>22</sup>, which scientists note can be a beneficial practice for warding off an age-related increase in abdominal obesity.
If you don’t strength train, now’s the time to start. If you do bodyweight exercises, add in resistance training. If you already lift weights, work up to adding additional weight or use more advanced strength-building techniques like progressive overload, isometric contractions, power lifting, etc.
The main takeaway: Work up to working out more intensely. Rather than spend hours every day working out, dial up the intensity a few times a week.
You can also burn more calories each day by increasing the amount of activity you do outside of your scheduled workouts. Known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), moving and standing more each day can help you burn the glucose that floats around your bloodstream so you can access your stored fat.
Here are ways to increase NEAT every day:
Micro workouts: From 10-minute circuits to 10-minute walks to 30–60 seconds of push-ups or squats, micro workouts count as any exercise or movement you can bang out while taking a break from work or sitting.
Walk more: Park you car in the spot farthest away from the front door, walk to do an errand close to home, take the dog out for short walks every four hours on the weekend. Just walk more.
Carry heavy things: Don’t ask for help loading your groceries in and out of the car (just take your time with it), pick up heavy bags of mulch (use your legs, not your back), stack two full laundry baskets and carry them upstairs (careful not to trip)... you get the idea.
Do chores: We tend to get busy and outsource things like cleaning the house, but rather than go to the carwash, clean and dry your car at home. Sweep the driveway, pick up leaves, mow the lawn, weed the garden.
Walk up and down stairs: Don’t take the elevator. You can even walk up and down escalators if there aren’t stairways nearby.
Stand: Standing burns more calories<sup>23</sup> than sitting. If you don’t have a standing desk at work, take breaks from sitting and walk around the halls.
How Sleep Loss Thwarts Fat Burning and How to Fix it
Sleep loss can affect the normal functioning of hormones that regulate your appetite and satiety. One study showed that mean leptin (a hormone that signals energy balance, cueing you to stop eating) levels were 19% lower when sleep was restricted<sup>24</sup> to four hours per night for six days.
Another study revealed that leptin levels were 18% lower, ghrelin (a hormone that signals feelings of hunger to your brain) levels were 28% higher, hunger ratings were 24% higher and appetite ratings 23% higher after just two days of four hours of sleep per night. What’s more: Sleep-deprived study participants reported increased cravings for high-carb, calorie-dense foods.
No wonder cold pizza, a giant breakfast burrito, or a huge stack of pancakes with bacon appear so appetizing the morning after one too many nightcaps and short, interrupted sleep.
You might notice that not sleeping well or for very long a few nights in a row can lower your inhibitions around food, similar to the way having that extra cocktail or beer at happy hour can make you care less about sharing truffle fries and jalapeno poppers.
The increased ghrelin and decreased leptin levels can cause a mean case of the “eff-its” and your hand could scrape the oversalted bottom of a potato chip bag before you realize it.
Another small, short-duration study showed similar findings in those trying to lose weight. When study participants got 5½ hours of sleep and followed a moderately calorie-restricted diet for two weeks, the proportion of the weight they lost from fat decreased by 55%. Weight lost from fat-free mass increased by 60%<sup>25</sup> and was accompanied by markers of increased hunger (ugh), neuroendocrine adaptation to calorie restriction (sucks), and a shift to burning less fat (sucks harder).
Sleep Hygiene Checklist
How do you get better at sleeping? Our sleep hygiene checklist can help:
Get your circadian rhythm dialed in: Within 30 minutes of waking, get outside to let sunlight into your eyes<sup>26</sup>. Don’t stare directly at the sun, of course, but let the morning light flood your eyes, even if it’s cloudy. If it’s raining, wait until it clears up to head outside. Try to get outside again in the afternoon and/or at sunset. Research shows that electric lighting and reduced exposure to sunlight delays circadian timing<sup>27</sup>.
Exercise, but time it right: If you don’t sleep well but are otherwise healthy, one small study showed that an hour of running at 60% max heart rate completed four hours before bedtime improved sleep quality<sup>28</sup>. Another review of 23 studies found that evening exercise showed a positive impact on sleep overall, but sleep onset, total sleep time, and sleep efficiency could be affected by vigorous exercise performed less than an hour before bedtime<sup>29</sup>.
Create a soothing sleep oasis: Splurge on a comfy mattress, pillows, sheets, and blankets. Some find that weighted blankets give them a sense of security, kind of like a hug. Add a white noise machine or play soothing rain or water sounds, block any lights by wearing an eye mask, or getting room-darkening curtains. We get better sleep in cooler temperatures, so adjust your thermostat or check out tech that cools your mattress if you can swing it, price-wise.
Avoid sugary alcohol, at least until you’re sleeping better: Some might claim that alcohol can “knock them out.” That may be true, but research suggests alcohol can cause you to stay up later<sup>30</sup>, pass out for a short while, and then experience disruptions in the second half of the night. If you must drink, try sipping a spirit straight, on the rocks, or mixed with soda water and lime or cucumber. Cocktails made with fruit juices and syrupy mixes, beer, and wine contain sugar that could disrupt your sleep, especially when imbibed right before bed. If you’re trying to lose weight, you should avoid these calorie-rich drinks anyway.
Take a supplement, if needed: A 2021 review of 31 randomized controlled trials found that subjective sleep quality was significantly improved by supplementation of amino acids, melatonin, and vitamin D<sup>31</sup>. Scientists noted that magnesium, zinc, nitrate, and resveratrol may improve sleep quality, but further research should be done.
Create a calming bedtime routine and honor it: Pick a sleep and wake time and stick close to those times every day (yes, even on weekends and holidays). Wear blue blockers, dim artificial lights (especially the blue light from your smartphone), and try to wrap up electronics use an hour before bedtime. Instead of Netflixing and scrolling, take a warm bath, sip caffeine-free tea, read a book that you hold in your hands, do a gentle yoga flow or meditate, read to the kids, talk to your partner, and relax.
Weight Is Just a Number
Weight loss plateaus can be a vexing part of your journey to a smaller, healthier you. Try to view a stall in weight loss as a checkpoint where you recommit to successful habits you’ve let lag or practice some new whittling-down strategies.
One last thought: If the numbers on the scale don’t match your goal weight, it might be time to reassess. How did you forecast your goal weight? Is it truly realistic, and something you’re willing to sacrifice more (time, exercise intensity, etc.) to achieve?
Are you feeling better after losing weight? Are you more fit? Have other health markers improved? Are your clothes fitting better? Do you have more energy and enjoy better moods? If the answer is yes to these questions, definitely take some time to reassess.
If you follow the strategies outlined in this article and continue to maintain versus lose, then talk to your doctor, a registered dietitian, or certified health coach. There could be an underlying health condition at play or you could be at a healthy-for-you weight and just haven’t realized it yet.